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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

It Was the Perfect Ticket to Cosmic Wonder, Until They Flattened It

One of the disadvantages of living in the city is that you are deprived of one of the great experiences of living: the experience of staring in awe at a clear sky filled with thousands of twinkling stars. There is something very special that happens during such a experience. It is as if you get in touch with some deep, mystic part of your soul that is normally hidden. Somehow the darkness around you and the dim, distant stars above you combine to create some feeling of awe, mystery, and wonder that you simply can't get by looking at an astronomical photo while sitting in your well-lit home. 

There is no way to have such an experience in New York City, because on a really clear night here you might see maybe five or ten stars. But 30 years ago in New York there was a place you could go to get the same type of feeling of cosmic wonder experienced by someone looking up at a night sky teeming with stars. The place was the old Hayden Planetarium, which served the public between 1933 and 1997.

The old Hayden Planetarium had a planetarium theater with seats, but that wasn't the best part. The best part was the set of visual exhibits that surrounded the planetarium theater. The exhibits were kept in very dark light. Barely able to see your path in front of you, you would walk through dimly lit halls containing representations of distant galaxies, stars, and planets. The design of the exhibits was astonishingly successful in creating exactly the same type of feeling of dark, mysterious wonder and awe that someone feels when standing in the middle of a dark field, looking up at a sky ablaze with five thousand stars.

But then some people had the idea of completely demolishing the old Hayden Planetarium. They tore it down and replaced it with some garish new building called the Rose Center for Earth and Space. The new building features some fancy architecture, and exhibits that always seem to be bathed in glaring bright light.

The new building fails to create the emotional effect that the old Hayden Planetarium created so effectively: that same mysterious, marvelous feeling of awe and wonder you feel when looking at a dark night sky filled with stars. I wish that they had left the old Hayden Planetarium exactly as it was, or that they had created a new building using the same approach.

The Rose Center for Earth and Space features a huge circular winding stairway that is supposed to teach you something about the age of mankind compared to the age of the universe. The idea is that you start out at the top of the stairway, at what is supposed to the Big Bang, the birth of the universe. Each step you take down the winding stairway is supposed to represent a particular unit of time. Then when you get at the end of the stairway, you see that all of human existence is shown in the last step. This is supposed to give you some “Aha!” moment in which you realize that man's existence has been short compared to the age of the universe.

I would guess that this very expensive exhibit has little effect on the minds of 99% of visitors. That's because it's a big complicated attempt to get your brain to think in some totally unfamiliar way, in which you equate physical distance walked with lengths of time. The Rose Center for Earth and Space could have had three times the emotional impact for one third the cost if it had stuck with the simple low-tech approach taken by the old Hayden Planetarium: just try to recreate that same old, magical, mystical, mysterious feeling of awe and wonder that humans have felt for 40,000 years when they looked up at the night sky on a clear night.